North Africa, West Asia: Interview

Can art change the world? An interview with Hanan Toukan

In her new book, Toukan investigates the relationship between Western funding and contemporary art in Beirut, Amman and Ramallah.

Tugrul Mende
7 October 2021, 12.01am
How do art, “neoliberal cultural funders”, art critics and artists, feature in our thinking about the role of resistance and dissent in cultural production?
Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Hanan Toukan is associate professor of politics and Middle East studies at Bard College in Berlin, a city that in recent years has become an important Arab artistic and cultural hub. The German capital hosts a growing number of artists and intellectuals from across the Middle East and North Africa who have found themselves there as exiles, refugees, or by choice. Toukan’s book ‘The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan’ was published in June this year by Stanford University Press.

Tugrul Mende: What is the book about?

Hanan Toukan: The book is about an uncomfortable topic for those of us who love art and/or who work in the field of culture and knowledge production, because it grapples with the fundamental question of consensus and under what conditions the global economies of cultural production can shape this form of participation in public life. The book is about art and its relationship to society and so it is consumed with the nexus of culture and politics. It centers its analysis on the practices of contemporary art and culture in specific parts of the Arabic-speaking world at the turn of the millennium, to uncover how counter-hegemonies are constructed, reproduced and above all understood by the publics from which they emerge.

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Specifically, it grapples with the site of contemporary art’s making and its circulation and reception, to understand how art and what I refer to as “neoliberal cultural funders”, as well as art critics and artists, feature in our thinking about the role of resistance and dissent in cultural production. In other words it not only analyses what statements artists make about their societies through what they produce in terms of form and content, but it also engages with the often-concealed powerful hegemonic processes that sometimes shape those very aesthetical formations and in turn how society relates to them.

TM: What do you understand by “politics of art”? How can art be used for dissent?

HT: To answer the first part of the question first, the relationship between art and politics can take many different forms and there are various nodes at which these two categories can meet. This can take the form of, say, cultural hegemony, collective identity, or a counter-history, a social experiment, a proposition, or sometimes just a political statement. Yet one artwork can embody various forms, at the same time. For example, it can articulate a collective identity and narrate a personal history, while at the same time also demonstrate a propensity to play into dominant discourses about how art should look and ‘be’.

When we begin to talk about how art can be used for dissent, we are already to some extent forcing the artistic act to become complicit in hegemonic readings about it

I try and show through certain artworks that I engage with, that how we read art production as spectators is often dependent on time and place and in particular art’s relationship to its context and the backdrop against which it is produced. In China Miéville’s ‘The Last Days of New Paris’, a book about surrealist works coming to life in an alternative history of World War II, the author calls not for a revolt in politics but for a dissonant revolt from within art itself. This idea inspired me very much to think about the circumstances under which art can disrupt our senses and established ways of thinking about what counts as art, and, even more, what counts as a dissident form of art with potential to disrupt how the world and especially power politics are experienced.


As for the second part of the question, let me begin by saying that from my own research I learned that when we begin to talk about how art can be used for dissent, we are already to some extent forcing the artistic act to become complicit in hegemonic readings about it. The book is about the institutional structures and thought that were in place in the first 10-12 years of the millennium that, knowingly or not, employed “‘art for dissent’, so to speak. It is about those institutional bodies that wanted to employ art and artists normatively to enable what was conceived of as progressive political change in the region. Throughout I argued that the ‘progressive change’ that was being sought was cloaked in the specifically Western liberal language of democratisation, rule of law, accountability and transparency that were very much part of the lexicon of the ‘global war on terror’ at the time. In line with this discourse and the structural framework set up to maintain it, the international development industry’s support for the arts began to grow in the mid-1990s into what is now termed the ‘cultural turn’ in international development aid literature and policy circles.

In this light, individuals working in the arts, traditionally sidelined by mainstream international development aid, came to be seen by international donors as crucial partners for bringing about desired change centred around emancipated, democratic, economically liberal, and globally networked societies based on the rule of law. Hence money was poured into the domains of paid civil society NGO-types in the cities I researched from the late 1990s and especially after 9/11.

The early giddy days of revolution in 2011-2012 were a blunt reminder that there already was a growing intersectional, progressive and genuinely critical conversation taking place on the streets

This continued through the outbreak of the Arab revolutionary process in 2011 and still continues today. Some of these monies were directed to artists and art-supporting organisations who were understood by their funders to represent the dissenting face of the Middle East. As the research in the book shows, from the interviews I carried out with European and US funders, these artists and the organisations that supported them tended to be regarded as the more ‘secular’, more ‘liberal’, and above all the most visibly critical of the dying ideologies in the region such as Arabism, nationalism, and Islamism, which – on the contrary – was very much alive during the period I studied, and of course still is.

The irony is that the early giddy days of revolution in 2011-2012 were a blunt reminder that there already was a growing intersectional, progressive and genuinely critical conversation taking place on the streets of Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Tunis and all the other cities too, whether those governments were overthrown or not. The participants in these revolutions weren’t led by the generation of artists that had benefited in one way or another from the cultural monies that poured in to the region after 9/11; instead, they were party members, unionists, workers, students, digital activists, and yes, some artists too, of course, who all fought for a chance to feel what emancipation does and to fantasise about how it might always be for them.

The point of my bringing this up is to highlight how even seemingly progressive and humane institutions can sometimes end up ‘organising’ how dissent is expressed in the cultural field. Hence to answer the question of when art can be used for politics or what the politics of art is really about, requires that we intricately redraw the map of how we thought the actors, institutions and artworks are in reality connected to one another.

TM: Why did you specifically choose Beirut, Ramallah, and Amman? What makes these cities unique as places of cultural production and what differences exist between them?

HT: I would not say these three cities are necessarily unique in the region or the world. But I do argue that if we look at them together we can unravel even more nodes at play in the production of culture and knowledge under the dominant regime of global neoliberal capital. I show in the book how all three cities I focus on underwent comparable socio-economic changes at the same time, and that what resulted was not necessarily an analogous form of art but a very specific discourse about art and what makes it ‘critical’.

Funders in this period directed their support to video art specifically, because it could be packaged more easily and because it was deemed a more fathomable art form for many Western audiences

This discourse propagated the idea that for art to be critical in the ‘right way’ it could not engage with traditional aesthetic forms, such as painting and sculpture for example, and that it had to be highly conceptual and even theoretical, plugged into a global network of artists and able to converse in a certain contemporary art language and vocabulary (mostly in English) that could reach a more global audience. One very good example is how funders in this period directed their support to video art specifically, because it could be packaged more easily and because it was deemed a more fathomable art form for many Western audiences.

I begin the book by showing how the early forces that shaped Beirut’s contemporary art landscape were the same structures put in place in the 1990s after the end of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). These forces also found their way to Ramallah and Amman, even if in the period I look at, works produced came to be known as ‘postwar’ art in Lebanon, and public art and public interventions in Amman while it in Ramallah it was obviously occupation-related works that were made most visible in global circuits of production. I show how all three cities were able to consolidate their places as safe havens for internationally funded civil society and democratisation projects, especially after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.

Despite the severe political and economic challenges that define the relationship between people and their governing elites in each of these contexts, and regardless of the prevalent public sentiment critical of the West and especially the US’s role in the region, these cities, I argue, maintained at the time a semblance of stability which was captured in their openness to Western capital and financial investments, as well as World Bank restructuring requests. In terms of size, they appeared relaxed and manageable for venture capitalists to navigate, aid workers to plan their projects in neighbouring countries, and for expats to live, especially as the region around them crumbled under violent warfare.

Until the mid-1990s, international donors tended to support socioeconomic growth over cultural development projects. The foundations for this shifting political and cultural landscape were in fact laid in the mid-1970s. During that period, Lebanon entered its long civil war, an official state of war continued between Jordan and Israel, and the Palestinian Occupied Territories writhed under continued Israeli occupation. Competition between the US and the Soviet Union, secular nationalist ideologies, and the balancing acts of nuclear threats, governed global geopolitics in these years.

The 1970s were a turning point in that they marked the failure and decline of Arab nationalism, the turn towards partial privatisation, and the growth of political Islam, especially after the 1967 Arab defeat, which shattered popular confidence in a pan-Arabist vision of liberation led by nationalist dictators.

There is now a younger, much larger, and more radical body of artists, activists and revolutionaries, singers and filmmakers

By the early 1990s, following the course of Egypt’s infitah, a partial opening to private and foreign investment in the 1970s and 1980s, the struggles of the postcolonial period – firmly rooted in grand questions of liberation, modernisation, and independence – began to make way for drastic neoliberal reforms and the continued breakdown of Arab unity that had already begun.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lebanon’s Second Republic emerged from the blood and rubble of the civil war. At the same time, the Hashemite regime in Jordan and the PLO signed their peace treaties with Israel, and thus, the chaotic period dissipated; a new era of global capital was consolidated. The simultaneous dwindling of Soviet influence in the region at the end of the Cold War, the onset of the first Gulf War, and the subsequent UN sanctions on Iraq, came with lucrative perks of membership of the growing global economy of international development and humanitarian aid, real estate, banking, and the creative industries.

This historical context I describe meant that even though the structural foundations of the art scenes in the different cities I focus on were not necessarily different from one another, together they formed a unique take on the agents and institutions which have normally been understood to account for art practices and audience tastes in Western art history.

This context dictated that I extend my research net out into the world of international development aid and the cultural diplomatic channels of Western governments. I therefore included in my analysis institutions and actors, and even works, that lie outside of the frameworks normally considered relevant to the study of art. In other words, and to borrow from American sociologist Howard Becker, I include in the “art world” what I referred to throughout the book as the global cultural funding organisations and their local partners working under the wider umbrella of civil society and democratisation.

TM: How does the Western art world see art from the Middle East? How did this view change after the uprisings in 2011?

HT: In retrospect I think what happened after 2011 was really about more of the same. Like everyone else, at the time I was utterly in awe and bedazzled by the sheer creative force that was unleashed on the streets of cities in the region. And this continues today. But sadly, even though 2011-2012 was a momentous revolutionary moment, which is arguably still ongoing in a very different and more complex form, it didn’t manage to upend the structural foundations by which art and culture from the region are circulated and represented outside the region.

What matters more for many cultural producers from the region today is whether and how art can ever truly play a role in finally bringing down the rotten regimes in that part of the world

There is now a younger, much larger, and more radical body of artists, activists and revolutionaries, singers and filmmakers that was not at my disposal when I conducted my fieldwork, which covered more or less the first 12 years of the millennium. This young body of writers, activists and creatives is not only seemingly unbound by the diktats of international NGO and civil society discourse, neoliberal capital, or authoritarian-propagated nationalism, but also loudly and unambiguously opposed to each of them. Today, activists across the spectrum continue to revolt for societal change from within by addressing social taboos like LGBTIQ rights, corruption, racism, sexism, domestic violence and migrant workers rights.

But while the events of 2011 showed the rest of the world that the citizens of Arabic speaking majority countries had desires and dreams like everyone else, that dizzying revolutionary time didn’t translate into a change of discourse on the representations of peoples and histories from the region in the Western art world. Capitals like Berlin, London, Paris and New York continued to bring Arab artists, and especially Syrian artists, within the framework of the group show to explain to its audiences this time what the revolutions and subsequent violent counter-revolutions were all about. But the beauty of the revolutionary fervour of 2011-2012 was that somehow ‘what the West thought’ stopped mattering so much.

What I sense today is that even as international funding organisations continue to spend money on bringing artworks from the region so that artists narrate the story of their community or nation in Western capitals to well-intentioned liberal audiences so that they can understand what is happening, what matters more for many cultural producers from the region today is whether and how art can ever truly play a role in finally bringing down the rotten regimes in that part of the world.

There seems to be an acknowledgement that while the politics of representation do matter, it is important not to get consumed with the terms of a debate set out by the Western research canon. I try to show in the book that the contours of cultural representation which funders and critics always ended up reinforcing through exhibitions, especially, are themselves a manifestation of the neoliberal forms of cultural production that are concerned above all with fetishising and making consumable soundbites of non-Western cultures and histories.

So yes, the artist as a cultural diplomat matters because, after all, we do live in an interconnected world and we may sometimes forget the extent to which cultural representation is played out in people’s everyday realities, especially in migrant communities living in the West. And here the artist can have a potentially very important role. But I do wonder if the artist or art can in fact ever carry out what it is often tasked with: ‘changing hearts and minds’, to use the Bush administration’s exact terminology to describe its interest in funding ‘the arts of the Middle East’.

Artists record, witness and archive. They also comment and provoke through their art forms. At the same time, however, global capital demands that art and artists be packaged in ways that may set them up for failure against the tasks set out for them. Even if their work claims to do just that, artists from non-Western regions, or any artist for that matter, cannot individually overturn the complex way that Western institutions choose to exhibit their work, or the expectations of Western audiences or even the Western museum’s enduring belief that it holds educational authority.

TM: How is your research politically relevant with everything that is happening in the region at the moment and how do you see the role of art in the present protest movements in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan?

HT: Like everyone else, I am trying to grapple with navigating our increasingly violent world so I am thinking about this question a lot these days. I want to admit that as a scholar, as a woman, as a mother and as an admirer of art, I really am torn between two voices in my head about how to relate to art in this context. These voices oscillate between dismal and a bit more hopeful.

Art, if we can even agree on what that is, cannot change the world. If it was going to then it would have already done that. But I do love the idea of art as a record, an archive and a witness of some sort, to history and to the passions and emotions of life. I also like to think of some artworks as evidence and traces of the pains and traumas that result from the violence of politics.

At the same time however, this powerful potential that some artworks hold doesn’t mean that every piece of art is emancipatory for that reason, nor should we not hold artists accountable and question the choices they make and the issues they choose to focus on aesthetically and politically. Artistic choices are, after all, also constitutive of the very structures of violence that sometimes enable the materialisation of some really powerful work.

So even if artists have demonstrated time and again the degree to which art can tackle social and political issues and that it can expose publics to challenges lived in everyday life in a new light so that they may generate discussion, we must still, as emancipated audiences, learn to read and expose art which sometimes interrogates rather than – as almost always – celebrates what appears to be an expression of dissent.

If contemporary art continues to be sustained through neoliberal ethics and capital as it is today, multiplying the sites of cultural production as cultural funding to the Arab region has tended to do, it means there are bound to be competing elements and visions about what art is, what its role should be and ultimately what it produces formally. This phase should not – and indeed cannot – follow a consensus-based course if we are to create a new radical language that responds to the right-wing populism resurgence in the West, environmental degradation and climate science denial, ever-rising global poverty and inequality levels, the brutal effects of neoliberal economic policies on development in the Global South and everywhere else we are living, and so on and so forth.

Global capital demands that art and artists be packaged in ways that may set them up for failure against the tasks set out for them

For those of us whose minds, lives and hearts roam the streets, seafronts, markets, and alleyways of the small cities that I have written about or the neighboring cities that I did not write about, watching those spaces bleed in the way that they have since the post-2012 violent turn in the Arab revolutionary process has been – to put it very mildly – an unsettling and truly disconcerting experience. However, as all catastrophic events do, they create openings and capacities for reflection are set in motion that call for mobilisation and thoughtful answers to hard questions. I feel the time now is ripe for the making of a new global humanism, where terms like ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘art’ are wrested from the Western Enlightenment tradition they are intermeshed with to create a new language that corresponds to, and acknowledges, the multiple and layered experiences of trauma, injustice and violence that people have undergone historically.

My hope is that my book is one small step in that direction. It merely asks that we look more deeply into the forces that create what often appear to us as expressions of dissent in artistic production to try and understand under what circumstances cultural and political hegemonies can be punctured.

TM: Your book was published more than a year after COVID-19 appeared globally, how much did the pandemic influence your own work on this book and the artists you were in contact with?

HT: I finished the revisions for this book in the summer of 2020, right before the explosion of Beirut’s port on 4 August. Seeing what the explosion did to so many of those I am emotionally and intellectually connected to in Lebanon was tough, to say the least and also for lack of a better word. This context began to gnaw at my thinking around education, art, critical thought, and ideas about change that I thought were formed more or less until the sadistic madness of the explosion. Once again, I believe we need a new visual, oral and textual language altogether.

Also, like everyone else for me the eight months preceding August 2020 were mind-boggling and acutely stressful to say the least. I think it is important to acknowledge this openly, especially to working parents who had to juggle homeschooling, their careers and the demands of capitalist economies that wanted the world to keep rotating at the cost of the emotional and psychological well-being of the workers that keep the system running.

If there was forgiveness for slowness and for mistakes on the job, this often came from individuals in institutions but rarely from institutional culture overall. The meaning of the book for me and what I thought it may do came in ebbs and flows. In the previous period before the pandemic, before Beirut’s explosion, May 2021 in Palestine, and many other life-interrupting events since, I believed that it would be perhaps, if I was lucky, transformative in the scholarly fields of Middle East studies, cultural studies and politics. Today, I hope that activists and thinkers from anywhere pick it up to think about how to strategise for the future. But I may be too idealistic and dreaming of a world where academia matters more than I am sometimes afraid it does these days.

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